PARK CITY, Utah (STATS) - Idaho State may no longer have Justin Arias behind center, but that doesn't mean the Bengals still don't have the talent to make some noise in the Big Sky Conference. Regardless, it's definitely a two-horse race for the league title, and it could be more than that.
The Bengals landed a league-high six players on the preseason all-conference team, and Montana State nipped Eastern Washington by one point as the preseason favorite in the coaches' poll announced Tuesday.
Idaho State heads into this season looking to build on its turnaround from a year ago, which saw it narrowly miss out on the FCS playoff field at 8-4. Of course, it also had Arias calling the shots. A finalist for the FCS national player of the year, the senior threw for 4,076 yards and 38 touchdowns in his final season in Pocatello.
While the graduation of Arias would seemingly set the Bengals back as they forge ahead, coach Mike Kramer's cupboard is hardly bare.
Running back Xavier Finney and wide receiver Madison Mangum were two of Arias' top weapons last season, and will now step into leading roles as they try to live up to their billing as all-conference selections.
Finney rushed for 1,495 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2014 and will try to build on that as he heads into his senior season. He said whichever quarterback takes over for Arias will have a strong supporting cast.
"We have a great O-line, whichever quarterback is coming in will have great protection," Finney said. "He'll have time to make a read, will have time to do all the right things, and I feel like that's going to help with their confidence as well. Our part is just to continue to do the right things like we did last season and to improve on them."
Finney and Mangum join center Christian Diehm, defensive lineman Tyler Kuder, linebacker Mario Jenkins and safety Taison Manu on the all-conference squad for the Bengals, who were voted in at sixth in the coaches' poll.
Yet for all of Finney's accomplishments, perhaps the most productive Big Sky offensive player over the last two seasons is Eastern Washington receiver Cooper Kupp, selected as the league's preseason offensive MVP. Kupp has been a Big Sky first-team selection his first two years in Cheney and is on the preseason season watch list for STATS Offensive Player of the Year. The junior is the only receiver to have won the Jerry Rice Award, given to the nation's top freshman player in FCS.
This time around, however, he'll have to move forward without one of the league's most storied quarterbacks throwing him the football.
Vernon Adams Jr. transferred from Eastern Washington to Oregon for his final year of eligibility. Adams was one of the most prolific signal-callers to play for the Eagles, who possess a long and storied list of great passers. Despite that departure, the media flipped the Eagles and Bobcats in their poll, making Eastern the preseason favorite.
But whether it's Jordan West or someone else delivering to Kupp this season, coach Beau Baldwin thinks his star wideout will still have as great an impact as ever.
"Cooper had a lot of leadership qualities last year. There were different times he took over as the leader as a sophomore even with Vernon here," Baldwin said. "I just think he keeps intensifying every year. As he gets older, more guys come in and realize what he's all about and, what you're going to see, is he's all about doing the little things. He's definitely our best player in terms of what he's done production-wise over the last two years."
Cowser has put up monster numbers for the Thunderbirds over the years and will be looking to improve on what he's done, but his No. 1 goal is to help get his team back to the FCS postseason where he believes it belongs.
"I'm excited to build on what I've done in my career," Cowser said. "I had a good year last year personally, so I'm excited to build off that and hopefully improve my leadership abilities to help wear off on other people too.
"I think we're really excited as a team to get back on track. It was a rough year for us last year. It was really hard losing a lot of games, but we're excited to get back to winning again. We're really looking forward to that."
After Idaho State, Montana State came in with five players on the all-conference preseason team, highlighted by quarterback Dakota Prukop. Montana, Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington - last year's Big Sky champions - all had four players make the preseason all-conference list, and both Southern Utah and Sacramento State had two apiece. Cal Poly rounded out the selections with one player earning all-conference distinction.
Montana, which hosts the college football season opener Aug. 29 against four-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State, ranked third in both the coaches' and media poll.
BIG SKY PRESEASON COACHES' POLL=
1. Montana State (6 first-place votes), 134 points.
2. Eastern Washington (6), 133.
3. Montana (1), 121.
4. Cal Poly, 111.
5. Northern Arizona, 95.
6. Idaho State, 90.
7. Sacramento State, 66.
8. Southern Utah, 64.
9 (tie). Portland State, 51.
9 (tie). North Dakota, 51.
11. Weber State, 43.
12. UC Davis, 33.
13. Northern Colorado, 22.
BIG SKY FOOTBALL PRESEASON TEAM=
Offensive MVP - Cooper Kupp, WR, Eastern Washington
Defensive MVP - James Cowser, DE, Southern Utah
QB - Dakota Prukop, Montana State
RB - Xavier Finney, Idaho State
RB - Kori Garcia, Cal Poly
FB - *Nick Butier, Northern Arizona
TE - R.J. Rickert, Northern Arizona
OG - JP Flynn, Montana State
OG - Aaron Neary, Eastern Washington
C - Christian Diehm, Idaho State
OT - *Clay DeBord, Eastern Washington
OT - John Weidenaar, Montana State
WR - *Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington
WR - Madison Mangum, Idaho State
WR - Nnamdi Agude, Sacramento State
WR - Jamaal Jones, Montana
DE - *James Cowser, Southern Utah
DE - Samsom Ebukam, Eastern Washington
DT - Tyler Kuder, Idaho State
DT - Taylor Sheridan, Montana State
LB - Mario Jenkins, Idaho State
LB - Kendrick Van Ackeren, Montana
LB - Darnell Sankey, Sacramento State
LB - Jeremiah Kose, Montana
CB - *Marcus Alford, Northern Arizona
CB - LeShaun Sims, Southern Utah
S - Taison Manu, Idaho State
S - Miles Killebrew, Southern Utah
PK - Brad Cornish, Sacramento State
P - Ryan Hawkins, Northern Arizona
Returns - Ellis Henderson, Montana
Special Teams - Chad Newell, Montana State
(* - unanimous selection)
---=FIVE KEY CONFERENCE GAMES=
Cal Poly at Montana State (Sept. 26) - QB matchup of Chris Brown (CP) and Dakota Prokup (MSU) spices up rematch of last year's Cal Poly upset.
Cal Poly at Eastern Washington (Oct. 10) - Visiting Mustangs have led FCS in rushing yards per game each of the last two seasons and WR Cooper Kupp is the touchdown-maker of EWU's vaunted passing game.
Eastern Washington at Idaho State (Oct. 17) - 2014 Big Sky Coach of the Year Mike Kramer watched Idaho State go undefeated at home last season.
Eastern Washington at Montana (Nov. 14) - Under first-year coach Bob Stitt, the Grizzlies hope to have a faster offense than EWU.
Montana at Montana State (Nov. 21) - No matter what's at stake (conference title, FCS playoff bids), these two programs have the fiercest rivalry around.